THIS has been a long-standing debate: What is Filipino architecture? Or is there such thing? More than just building enclosures and creating spaces, architects usually make sure that the building design fits to its local context and reflect the traditions and culture to be more “connected” to its environment, the community, and especially to its people.
In the case of Filipinos, the search for a true “Filipino architecture” could be problematic. Being a colony of different countries, the local culture got entwined with mostly western influences. This may work both ways in creating a national identity in our architecture.
Every second week of December, the country observes National Architecture Week (NAW), through a presidential declaration some years ago under then president Ferdinand Marcos. This year’s theme, “PanaNAW: Visions of Filipino Architecture,” reminds us to not just rediscover our history but create building designs we can call our own. Here are some ways how “Filipino style” is perceived.
“Native” look. More often than not, people associate whatever they consider as “Filipino” in architecture to the native materials that are used in the construction of a building. The bahay kubo has always been a convenient reference if people think about Filipino architecture. However, Pinoys cannot claim exclusivity to this indigenous house since it (or its related variants) is also found in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. Yet with this, the materiality of a design has been made as basis in interpreting a “Filipino” approach to designing buildings. The recently conferred National Artist for Architecture, Francisco “Bobby” Manosa’s buildings such as the Coconut Palace in Manila, have been strongly characterized by the use of native materials and vernacular forms. Here in Cebu, old Spanish-era houses in the downtown area of Cebu City as well as heritage-rich cities and towns like Carcar, boasts of “mestizo” architecture such as the bahay na bato, which mixes “native” and foreign design influence. This is also considered “Filipino.”
Toward the intangibles. Some architects say that the “Filipino” side of architecture is not just exhibited in the use of nipa, bamboo and coco lumber in buildings but also can be unraveled in how spaces and rooms are planned inside an edifice. The presence of readily accessible communal spaces in a building such as a house or a mall reflects the generally jovial and sociable nature of Filipinos. Installing an elaborate altar in the family room usually mirrors almost typically, deep religiosity of a Filipino family. The way a building responds to the tropical climate prevalent in the country may also contribute into a building’s being “Filipino.”
Modernizing the vernacular. Foreign influence continues to create its imprint in architecture in many countries, including the Philippines. With modern design concepts popping out, architects also find these innovations practical for the local conditions. The rigid, brutalist forms of Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer is evident in how another National Artist for Architecture, Leandro Locsin, weaved his design of notable buildings such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which gives the impression of a floating solid block. The form is said to be an abstraction of the stilted bahay kubo.
The quest to arriving at something distinctly “Filipino” in architecture may not necessarily lead us to creating unique architecture such as the traditional forms solidly established by the Chinese or Japanese. With globalization, the manner of injecting the vernacular vibe in building design may lie on how Filipinos adapt to the changes positively while maintaining a firm grip on their history and treasuring the practical values that come with their storied past.